Madison, Wisconsin: Some Restaurant Suggestions


This list of restaurants is meant to help you find a good meal in Madison. We have lots of great places to eat, so this isn't too much of a chore. This list is a work-in-progress, so is definitely not complete. Comments, additions, and corrections are all welcome! Send mail to email address

Note that these comments are based on personal opinions and should not be construed as official statements of the University of Wisconsin or the State of Wisconsin.

A general apology: this page is out of date in many areas. Sorry! I am trying to find the time to make some substantial updates.

I am attempting to update this page again. I have deleted many obsolete reviews and just added my first new one (The Icon). Stay tuned.

Here are some places that I like that I have not reviewed yet: Monty's Blue Plate Diner (east side), Hubbard Avenue Diner (downtown Middleton), Old Fashioned (Capitol Square), Frida Mexican Grill (117 State St.), Taste of India (Monroe St.).


Cafe Porta Alba

Date of review: December 2007

Distance from department: ~1.5 miles. Distance from Capitol: .2 miles.

Where: 15 North Butler Street (at the corner with E. Washington), 608-441-0202.

Madison is now lucky enough to have two authentic Italian style pizzerias, Cafe Porta Alba and Pizza Bruta (review coming soon). Both are quite good in their own way and bring a much more authentic pizza to Madison.

The Icon

Date of review: December 2007

Distance from department: ~1.2 miles. Distance from Capitol: .2 miles.

Where: 206 State St, at Dayton. 608-256-3000.

The Icon is the latest in the small plates trend of restaurants. It is run by the same folks that stared Frida's Mexican Restaurant (less trendy than The Icon, but worthwhile). The Icon is a stylishly decorated, though perhaps bordering on tacky, small place just across the street from the Overture Center. The old movie theme works pretty well, though the bizarre paintings on the long wall over the tables are, well, bizarre. The menu tries very hard to match the style and sometimes succeeds wonderfully and sometimes not. There is an extensive drink menu -- everything seems to be a martini these days -- with a decent wine collection and extensive bottled beer list. The Vionege that I tried (at $7/glass) was pretty decent but served refrigerator cold. It took 15-20 minutes for the wine to come up to a temperature where I could properly taste any of the fruit. Such a faux is pax is surprising at a restaurant that specializes in wine by the glass.

Four of us were dining. Three of us decided to share four small plates, and the fourth selected an entree. We started with the Bake Goat Cheese. This was a satisfying dish of a scoop of chevre surrounded by a homemade tomato sauce and served with well-seasoned pieces of garlic bread. While the tastes worked our pretty well, the amount of bread was insufficient for the cheese and sauce. When we asked for more, they brought us some plane crostini; acceptable, but much less flavorful then the garlic bread. Note that other reviewers have commented on this imbalance in the portion (and we'll see that in other items as well).

The second small plate was the Roasted Eggplant Salad. This cold salad included pieces of eggplant, tomatoes, and onion, with a tart vinegarette dressing, served with crisp thin crostini.. The overall flavor was good, quite strong, though hid any of the individual ingredients. I really like eggplant and, even after picking out individual pieces, I couldn't taste eggplant flavor. The five crostini pieces, again, were not sufficient for the amount of salad and we had to ask for more (which were happily provided).

The third small plate was, for most of us, the star of the evening. This was the Marinated Spanish White Anchovies. Starting with a crostini, place some green (spinich), a creamy pesto of almond and parsley, and an anchovy. The anchovy had a clear taste without the overly strong pickled flavoring you often get. It blended beautifully with the other ingredients. I am frequently in Barcelona and, of all the dishes we had that evening, this one stands out as matching the best that is produced in our favorite Barcelona tapas restaurants.

Our last plate was the Ahi Tuna Tartare. The tender tuna was in 3/8" chunks, mixed with shallots, tomatoes, and olives. Capers and onions were sprinkled on the plate. While the tuna was certainly fresh, the flavors on this dish were subdued to the point of bland. I was hoping for some bright notes of flavor, maybe a bit of heat or acid, to bring out the rich tuna taste. Or maybe just a little more salt? The tartare was served with the (seemingly) ever-present crostini.

We also ordered the Slow Roasted King Salmon. This dish was supposed to be brought out with the first of the small plates, but only made it to the table with the last of them. Each time that we asked about its progress, the waiter gave us a somewhat exasperated "it's coming" response. The salmon, relatively small portion, was served over Israeli cous-cous and topped with an herb-filled vinegarette. Now, slow roasting salmon seemed like a strange concept to me. Poaching is a nice preparation for salmon, as is searing (careful to not overcook), but too much heat is trouble for salmon. While the salmon was fine, the amount of cous cous was not (quite sparse), and the amount of sauce was also quite limited.

The real winners of the evening (besides the anchovy) were the desserts. The desserts are $3 each, encouraging you to order several and share. And we did. We ordered four, a rich chocolate mousse served over marinated strawberries, a dense, fudge-like chocolate truffle cake with vanilla ice cream and a touch of caramel sauce, a pear and marzipan tart, and an apple crisp served with vanilla ice cream. While I am not a chocolate fan, the choclate eaters at the table appreciated those two desserts. I found the texture of the mousse quite nice, velvety, but the truffle cake seemed bit overly hard. The crisp was nicely done, crisp on top and good fruit, not overly sweetened, inside. The pear tart was tasty, though a bit doughy. The pears needed to stand out more against the crust and marzipan.

I always order espresso at a new restaurant with trepidation, and the solo espresso at the Icon unfortunately justified this feeling. As the cup arrives, it should be half or less full, with the light-brown foam ("crema") on top, and the coffee should be strong, not overly bitter, with that oily texture that indicates you've extracted the best of the coffee bean. My dread starts when the cup is full. This usually doesn't mean a double or triple, just too much water (an "over pulled" shot). So, my first espresso was sent back, and the second one was only slightly over pulled. Serious coffee drinkers should delay their order until after dinner, and then walk to one of the dozen coffee shops on State St.

All in all, an acceptable dinner, but we are in no rush to return to the Icon.


Date of review: 2006

Distance from department: ~1.5 miles. Distance from Capitol: 0 miles.

Where: 25 N. Pinckney, on the Capitol square, second floor (hard to find the front door, but worth it!). 608-251-0500.

Entrees ~$20-30. You can figure around $60-75/person, all told.

Often considered the best food in Madison. I would certainly describe it as the most consistently creative and elegant. Odessa Piper founded this place and it has become a training ground for many of the top chefs in Madison. Regularly makes the list of top restaurants in the country. Featured in Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines. Local ingredients, artfully prepared. Piper is a regular patron of the local sustainable agriculture (organic) farms. During the warmer months, she (and her red wagon) frequent the down town Farmers Market. The menu changes weekly, depending on what is in season. Piper often features Fantom Farms chevre and produce from Harmony Valley. Usually one vegetarian entree, menu varies weekly. Front tables have beautiful view of the Capitol.


Date of review: N/A

Distance from department: ~1.0 mile. Distance from Capitol: 4 blocks.

Where: 508 State St., slightly closer to the campus than to the Capitol. 608-257-1740.

Traditional bistro cooking, done extremely well. This is definitely worth the visit.

A more complete review is coming soon.


Date of review: 2006

Distance from department: ~1.0 miles. Distance from Capitol: 0 miles.

Where: 21 N. Pinckney, on the Capitol square. 608-255-6075.

Trendy food and upscale. Plan on $30-$50/person, all told.

Harvest is the newest arrival on the downtown restaurant scene. And, unlike several of its recent predecessors, it appears to have the depth and talent to takes its place among the other top restaurants in town.

The first thing to note is the chutzpah of its location; it is only a few doors away from that perennial source of excellent food, L'Etoile. This proximity to L'Etoile invites immediate comparison, and Harvest makes a respectable showing in this regard.

Walking in the door, the feeling is one of simple, clean lines and comfortable seating. The dining area is reminiscent of the unpresumptuous restaurants of Italy and France. We are gratefully saved from overly trendy decor, open kitchens, and overly noisy rooms.

The menu is relatively small, about eight starters and eight entrees; but I prefer to see a restaurant do some basic things well than many things in a mediocre fashion. Our samples from the menu show that Harvest has made the right choice.

The bread arrive first; small, indivual loaves of white and herb bread. It was fresh baked, slightly crunchy on the outside and tasty on the inside. Curiously, the waiter distributed the bread to each of us randomly, not announcing that there were different kinds of bread nor asking which type we preferred. In retrospect, I preferred both kind that I tried.

The wine list was not overly-huge, but stocked with nice choices. The list is heavy in European wines over a nice price range. The by-the-glass list is short, but includes some quite decent choices.

Before our starters, we were brought a tiny tureens of mushroom broth; just a few sips worth. It was a nice, albeit unconventional, warm-up for our taste buds. To be picky here, the broth had a good earthy flavor, but missing the bright notes that would've been more appropriate at the first stages of the meal (maybe a bit of ginger?)

I started my meal with a spinach and beet salad. The greens were tender baby leaves evenly coated with a simple, but tasty vinegarette (perhaps, a bit more sharpness or acid would've been nice, but this is being picky). The beets, buried beneath the mound of spinach, were sweet and tender. We also tried the celery soup; a creamy base with quite a delicate and lovely taste. Several of the other appetizers on the menu looked worthy of trying (such as the salmon tartare), and we hope to try them on a future visit.

My entree was a seared salmon, nicely medium rare, served over a bed of lentils. The fish was fresh, crispy on the seared side, and moist throughout. The menu selection described the lentils being prepared with ham, which I asked them to leave out. Unfortunately, the plate arrive with ham. There was no fuss about replacing the food, including a freshly cooked piece of salmon.

We also tried the pumpkin risotto and roast chicken. The risotto was creamy with a beautiful pumpkin and gentle spice flavor throughout. Perhaps the rice was a bit too al dente for my taste (I like the resistance of a firm center, but no sign of a crunch), but there was no problem finishing the dish. Two of my companions had the roast chicken. If you want to test the skills of a kitchen, roasting a chicken is the perfect measure. It should have crispy skin, just the right golden brown, moist meat cooked evenly throughout, and tender enough to cut without special hardware. Harvest's roast chicken succeeded well at this test.

The dessert menu looked extremely tempting, but I was full and my companions too cowardly to precede to another course. Next time, I will try desserts!

Coffees followed all. The espresso was quite reasonable. My companions insisted on ordering cappuccino (Italian's simply don't drink milk with their coffee after mid-morning!), and these were very nice.

Overall, an excellent meal. There were a few service misses, but they were always cheerfully fixed. I will be back soon.

The Dardanelles

Date of review: N/A

Distance from department: 4 blocks. Distance from Capitol: 1 mile.

Where: 1851 Monroe Street. 608-256-8804.

Mediterranean food with dishes from various countries in this region.

Blue Marlin

Date of review: earlier than 2004

Distance from department: ~1.5 miles. Distance from Capitol: 0 miles.

Where: 101 N. Hamilton, north-east corner of the Capitol square. 608-255-2255.

entrees ~$20

Fresh fish and seafood.

Restaurant Magnus

Date of review: 2007

Distance from department: 1 mile. Distance from Capitol: 2 blocks.

Where: 120 Wilson Street. 608-258-8787

This the downtown's newest addition to trendy restaurants, this time with a South American twist.

Tutto Pasta

Date of review: 2008

Distance from department: ~1 mile. Distance from capitol: 5 blocks.

Where: Corner of Johnson and State Streets (305 State St). 608-294-1000

Italian. $10-15 for entrees.


Date of review: probably before 2005

Distance from department: varies. Distance from Capitol: varies, but one location is 2 miles.

Where: 2534 Monroe St. and (as of fall 2007) at the Hilldale Shopping Center. 608-238-4419

Southwest style Mexican. Informal (counter service). Very good. $5-7.


Date of review: probably before 2005

Distance from department: ~1 mile west of department. Distance from Capitol: 2 miles.

Where: 2524 Old University Ave., near Highland Ave. 608-233-2172.

Middle eastern food. Lots of Vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices. Consistently excellent. $8-16 entrees w/soup or salad

Himal Chuli

Date of review: probably before 2005

Distance from department: ~1 mile. Distance from Capitol: 4 blocks.

Where: 318 State St., third block from Library Mall on the left. 608-251-9225.

Nepalese food $5-12. Excellent food by any measure. If you've never had food from Nepal, this is a great chance to get a first-class exposure. Lots of vegetarian and non-vegetarian alternatives.


Date of review: probably 2006

Distance from department: .75 mile. Distance from Capitol: 4 blocks.

Where: A few doors down from their sister restaurant, Himal Chuli. 608-251-3626

Himalean Food $5-15. Run by the son of the Himal Chuli owners. A slightly more up-scale version of Himal Chuli, with more tables. Dishes represent a wider coverage of the Himalean region. Lots of vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices. Madison is *very* luck to have two restaurants from this region.


Date of review: probably before 2005

Distance from department: ~.5 mile. Distance from Capitol: .5 mile.

Where: 547 State St. 2nd block from Library Mall (on right). 608-256-0900.

Turkish, and some Italian. $7-10 for lunch. Some vegetarian, but mostly meat dishes.

Taste of India

Date of review: 2008

Distance from department: ~1 mile. Distance from Capitol: ~2 miles.

Where: 2623 Monroe Street, 608-218-9200.

India Darbar

used to be India Garden

Date of review: probably 2006, with 2008 comments

Distance from department: ~3 miles. Distance from Capitol: 4 miles.

Where: 6119 Odana Road, ?


La Hacienda

Date of review: earlier than 2006

Distance from department: ~1.0 miles. Distance from Capitol: .75 mile.

Where: 515 S. Park Street. 608-255-8227.

Mexican food. ~$7-10.

Kennedy Manor

Date of review: earlier than 2004

Distance from department: ~1.5 miles. Distance from Capitol: .5 mile.

Where: 1 Langdon St., corner of Wisconsin Ave. and Langdon in basement of what looks like an apartment complex (walk up Langdon). 608-256-5556.

American bistro fare. Very nice environment.


Date of review: ???

Distance from department: ~1.5 mile. Distance from Capitol: 2.5 miles.

Where: 1124 S. Park St. (right side as heading south). 608-255-2848.

Thai/Vietnames food. $7-10. Madison is fortunate to have several very good Thai (and related cuisine) restaurants. Lots of vegetarian and non-vegetarian offerings.

Great Dane Brewing Company

Date of review: updated in 2008

Distance from department: ~1.75 miles Distance from Capitol: 2 blocks.

Where: 123 East Doty. 608-284-0000.

Brew Pub-like food. Sandwiches, salads, assortment of hot entrees. Beer made on premises is very good. Usually a choice of six beers. Outdoor dining available on the back terrace in the warmer weather.

Also check out Angelic Brewing Company, just off of State Street. Excellent beer, but a slightly smaller menu.


Date of review: probably before 2004

Distance from department: ~.5 mile. Distance from Capitol: 1/4 mile.

Where: 449 State St. and Gillman, top of corner building. 608-255-5020.

Japanese. $7 and up. Traditional Japanese dishes, including sushi.


Date of review: probably before 2004

Distance from department: ~2.5 miles. Distance from Capitol: 3.5 miles.

Where: 3005 University Ave.

Best steaks in around. entrees ~ $18. An old fashioned steak house for the serious meat eater.

Cafe Continental

Date of review: probably 1995 (!!!)

Distance from department: ~1.0 miles. Distance from Capitol: 0 blocks

Where: 108 King Street. 608-251-4880.

Continental dishes, pasta, and thin-crust pizza. Entrees and pizzas do no include salad. One of the newest additions to the downtown dining scene. $15-25/person all told.

Coffee Shops


Distance from department: 0.5 mile. Distance from Capitol: 1.5 miles.

Where: 1859 Monroe Street. ?.

A comfortable coffee shop.

Indy Coffee

Distance from department: 3 blocks. Distance from Capitol: 1.0 mile.

Where: 1225 Regent Street 608-259-9621.

This coffee shop is near to the Computer Sciences Department and is Bart's current local favorite (2008). He even holds office hours there.

Espresso Royale

Distance from department: ~ 1.0 mile. Distance from Capitol: 2 blocks and 8 blocks.

Where: Two locations on State Street

A campus area favorite. Art deco interior.

Victor Allens

Distance from department: various

Where: Various:

Steep and Brew

Distance from department: various

Where: Various:


Distance from department: 1.0 mile. Distance from Capitol: .5 mile.

Where: State Street

It was inevitable that Starbucks would arrive in Madison. The interior is nicely decorated, though chaotically layed-out. There is an upstairs with patio (nice touch).

Last modified: Thu Apr 3 13:05:45 CDT 2008 by Karen